I’m such a music lover, that a film about a musician can be corny and I still end up liking it. Yesterday and Sing Street come to mind. After being disappointed by the musical route they took with Rocketman, another faux musical isn’t what I wanted with this story. And it’s the movie my wife was looking most forward to this year. You see, she’s from New Jersey, where you’re required to be a Bruce Springsteen fan. She’s such a fan that she once “broke” into his house in New Jersey and left her phone number in one of his coat pockets (her cousin was building the pool in his backyard). He never called, but she stayed a hardcore fan, even surprising me with tickets to see him in L.A. a few years ago. Yet she wanted to kill me when I complained that his almost four hour concert was a little too long. I mean, I own a couple Springsteen albums, but I don’t want to be doing ANYTHING for four hours.
The idea of a coming-of-age story, with a guy that is bullied and dealing with racism, from a working class family, that feels Springsteen’s lyrics are speaking to him…that could work. And the scene where a classmate gives him Springsteen cassettes, should remind all of us music lovers of the first time we were given an album, tape, or CD that we ended up loving. I remember the first time I got two Doors albums as a 6-year-old. I remember being in 5th grade when a guy let me borrow two Led Zeppelin albums. I remember being in 7th grade and giving $10 to Gina Barone for a Kinks and AC/DC album.
I was worried about this movie when my wife and I ran into critic Scott Mantz, and asked him if he liked this. This is the most upbeat, positive critic around. The smile on his face sank, which told us everything. And since it was from director Gurinder Chadha, he said “It reminded me a lot of ‘Bend it Like Beckham’.”
It’s based on the much better titled book — Greetings From Bury Park. Especially since most people are only familiar with the song Blinded by the Light because of Manfred Mann’s terrific cover (Springsteen’s original is almost unlistenable).
What’s disappointing is that writers Paul Mayeda Berges, Sarfraz Manzoor, and Chadha — doing a story about a Pakistani teen in Britain in the ‘80s, made this feel like a cheesy rebel movie from that time (Footloose comes to mind). And Springsteen’s words work wonderfully in his songs, but as bits of dialogue, not so much (The Doors movie had the same problem).
Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) plays the quiet kid that writes poems and songs for a local band his neighbor is in.
In the cafeteria, Roops (Aaron Phagura) gives him Springsteen cassettes, one is Born in the USA, one of the biggest records of the year. I wondered why his friend never asked for his cassettes back. I always got my music back (I’ll never forget that when getting one of my Who albums back from David Salomon, it had a huge scratch in his favorite song; yet he denied doing it).
When Javed hears these songs, he goes running outside and dancing in the dark…and rain. We get the goofy words of the songs appearing on the screen, as if we’re watching an episode of Sesame Street. There’s something so weird about that move. Even in Bohemian Rhapsody, it was dumb to show the various countries they’ve played on the screen, in different colored fonts.
As the story is being told, we get a bit tired of Javed’s overbearing parents and the racist folks in the neighborhood. Perhaps they were just done a bit too over the top. The dad is always yelling about Javed getting into business or working at a car plant, when he yearns to be a writer or journalist. The racist teens made sense, but when a racist child pees in the mailbox slot of the door…you wonder why the parents don’t just throw the door open and knock the little jerk on his butt.
I had read that Springsteen was given the script and gave his okay to let them use any songs they wanted for their film, which is great. It just seemed the filmmaker had a bit of trouble trying to weave the iconic songs into the narrative.
It was enjoyable when they did one of my favorite songs, Thunder Road, at a Farmer’s Market. Even comedic genius Rob Brydon, who plays a father to one of the classmates, joins in on vocals.
Other times, the song-and-dance routines were painfully embarrassing. I ran into the two stars of this movie at CinemaCon. I hadn’t seen the movie yet but they were telling me all about it as Kalra smoked. I asked them their favorite Springsteen songs, and he said “I’m on Fire.” I told him I loved that song, but my wife is creeped out by the line “Hey, little girl is your daddy home/did he go away and leave you all alone.” He laughed and said, “Yeah, that line is weird. It’s like…are you a pedophile?”
When I asked Nell Williams (who plays love interest Eliza) her favorite song she said “Born to Run.” I love the tune, and when I asked her why she liked it, she said because of the scene where it’s used in the movie. She added, “You’ll know why when you see the movie.”
When I finally saw that movie a few months later, it was that scene that made me cringe. The characters running around the school hallways, and in a DJ booth, singing along and dancing to the song. It didn’t feel rebellious, just…corny.
The funny thing about talking to the two leads (who were flirting like they were a real life couple), is that they hadn’t even heard the song Blinded by the Light.
Since the film was two hours, and a lot of that boring, you’ll wish for a few less characters and subplots. There’s an older sister that’s getting married. There’s a younger sister that goes clubbing without her parents knowing. There’s an encouraging teacher (Hayley Atwell, who was Peggy Carter in the Marvel universe). There’s unemployment, school DJs (Frankie Fox) that hate Springsteen, and a stodgy WWII veteran (David Hayman) who lives next door, and has a few opinions on the young man’s writing.
So much of this feels like we’ve seen it before, and in better movies. The mom that tries talking sense into the angry dad. The kid that we all root for.
A trip to America, reminded me of the Irish country singer that takes a trip to Nashville in the disappointing Wild Rose last month. And this trip would’ve worked so much better if we didn’t see the funniest bit in the trailers (involving a TSA agent looking at his passport and asking about the reason for his visit).
This is a sweet love letter to the Boss, and I’m sure Springsteen will adore it. I remember chuckling when someone asked Paul McCartney what he thought of Across the Universe (which did work for me). He said, “It was filled with Beatles songs. What’s not to like?”
This is just a bloated story that was trite. After an hour and a half, knowing it had another 30 minutes, I thought….baby, I was born to run…out of the theatre!
(it was between that or “Bored in the USA”).
2 stars out of 5.